P. 64: DB recounts Tannhaeuser's narrative about his pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution from the Pope, which turns out to have been futile: DB: "Throughout the pilgrimage he had gone to extremes of self-denial and mortification in his determination to make amends. He tells how he reached Rome; how he approached the Pope confidently and made his confession; but the Pope gave a terrible response: 'If you have partaken of the wicked pleasures of the Venusberg, you are damned for eternity. Just as this staff in my hand can never flourish fresh and be green again, so your salvation can never blossom forth from among the burning brands of hell'."
PH: There are several parallels here with the case of Parsifal in Act III of that music-drama. Like Tannhaeuser in relation to his lover-muse Venus, Parsifal has been cursed by a potential lover-muse (Kundry) to never find any path he seeks (particularly the path of holiness and salvation) but that which leads back to her, and so the preludes to the third acts of both "Tannhaeuser" and "Parsifal" express the anguish of the hero who has sought holy salvation but who cannot obtain it. Parsifal, like Tannhaeuser, has "... gone to extremes of denial and mortification in his determination to make amends." Some reading this remark will ask how Parsifal is making amends for a sin in struggling to bring back the Holy Spear to the Grail Hall in order to heal Amfortas with it, but we must remember that Parsifal in Act II holds himself in some way responsible either for having caused Amfortas's wound, or at the very least for not having had the wisdom when he first met Amfortas to know how to heal it. The two cases seem different on the surface but in both instances we are dealing with the wound that will never heal, which is the price man pays for imaginatively positing an illusory realm of redemption and transcendence as an alternative to the real world and man's natural limits, which man's gift of symbolic consciousness makes it difficult for him to tolerate or reconcile with his longings and fears, which are magnified to infinity by man's reflective consciousness and gift for symbolic abstraction.
PH: The reason the Pope finds Tannhaeuser's sin irredeemable, in spite of it being a primary article of Christian faith that Christ can forgive all sins, is that Tannhaeuser has, in exposing the secrets of the Venusberg to view by his audience, in his contest song, exposed the true but hidden source of inspiration for man's invention of religious faith in the first place, the longing to assuage all natural fear, and satisfy man's longing for natural bliss, infinitely, in an imaginary transcendent realm which is autonomous from the limits of man's natural body and natural law. Tannhaeuser has committed a mortal sin against Mother Nature in the first place by hoping for salvation from the sins of his mortal flesh, and has committed a mortal sin against religious faith by exposing the natural origins of that faith to his audience who, incapable of acknowledging this fact consciously, instead condemn him to oblivion simply to cast away the intolerable thoughts he has forced them to contemplate. Therefore their response to Tannhaeuser, and the Pope's, are instinctive, not rational. He is quite simply a threat to faith. "Parsifal," constituting as it does Wagner's final thoughts on these questions, is of course different from "Tannhaeuser" in many ways, which I will discuss when I review DB's chapter on "Parsifal."
PH: The Pope's dead wood staff here becomes a symbol for divine authority which is predicated on the illusion that man and his law can be autonomous from man's body and natural law, i.e., miraculous in nature, and to this degree resembles somewhat Wotan's spear of authority and divine law. Recall that in the "Ring," by virtue of breaking off a branch of the World Ash to make his spear, the spring of natural wisdom under the Ash dries up, and the Ash withers and dies. This reflects Wagner's reading of, or familiarity with, Feuerbach's writings, in which the various means religious man uses to distinguish what is holy from nature, such as the insistence on celibacy for priests, the belief in an omnipotent and omniscient Godhead, the belief in immortality, the belief that man can be purified of all physical taint through redemption, etc., in effect figuratively kill Mother Nature, and stifle natural impulse in man. Therefore, when the Pope's dead staff seemingly miraculously comes back to life and sprouts green shoots in the finale of "Tannhaeuser," signaling his redemption, the significance of this is that Mother Nature's rights have been restored, as they are in the 'Good Friday Spell' from "Parsifal." However, Wagner' in "Tannhaeuser" had not yet fully worked out the logic and coherence of his ultimate world view which gives such coherence to his four mature music-dramas, and therefore we seem to have a fairly conventional climax in which Elizabeth's sacrifice to God to atone for Tannhaeuser's sin seems to save a place for him in heaven. But in "Parsifal," Wagner had fully developed this world view, and expressed this restoration of Mother Nature's rights and innocence, and renunciation of both religious faith in transcendent value, and secular art (this is why the potential muse of inspiration Kundry dies; the works of art she might otherwise have inspired Parsifal to create are no longer redemptive, her salves for man's wound that will never heal are only temporary and actually more painful than the wound itself). The restoration of Mother Nature's rights is to be found in the 'Good Friday Spell'.
PH: When Kundry kissed Parsifal in Act II, he had a catastrophic revelation: Parsifal had been reborn again and again, like Kundry. This I believe is Wagner's metaphor for the fact that Parsifal represents an archetype for all artists, both the original waking dreamers who involuntarily invented, or dreamed, our religions into existence, and sustained and renewed them when under threat, the prophets and seers and revolutionary creators of new religions, like Jesus and Buddha, and the inspired secular artists who fell heir to man's religious longing for transcendent value, when religious faith could no longer be sustained. Kundry, like Venus, Elsa, Bruennhilde, Isolde, and Eva, knows for the hero what he doesn't know, his true identity, for she is the hero's unconscious mind, the repository for thoughts which are intolerable to think as concepts, but which can only be safely confronted in sublimated form in art. Amfortas's wound that will never heal is actually caused by man's futile quest for holiness, because it is predicated on the illusion of transcendence, that man's primary source of value and meaning lies outside the real, finite world and body which gave him birth. Parsifal in a sense now remembers all his prior lives as religious seers and prophets, and realizes he himself is responsible for Amfortas's wound, and that it will never heal until man no longer posits the mystery of transcendence, the Grail, and exposes its truth to view, and restores Mother Nature's innocence. Parsifal takes Kundry to be his mother Herzeleide, and thanks to Kundry telling Parsifal what he did not know, that it was through his neglect of his mother (Nature) that Herzeleide died, Parsifal comes to see that the muse Kundry, who helped Klingsor (the very type of the secular artist who has outlived his ability to redeem man by giving birth to works of art out of the womb of his unconscious, his lover-muse, and is therefore now effectively castrated, because art has now become too conscious and is no longer unconsciously inspired) deliver the wound that will never heal to Amfortas (who is Wagner's metaphor for mankind as a whole, and therefore for Wagner's audience), he decides to totally renounce his former identity (identities), and to heal Amfortas's wound by renouncing both religious faith and art, renouncing all efforts to seek redemption from reality through illusion. Parsifal confuses Kundry with his Mother (Nature), because art is man's surrogate mother, the Mother Nature man prefers. Similarly, Tristan conflates his love for Isolde with the mother who died giving him birth, in Act III, and Siegfried confuses Bruennhilde with his mother, who died giving him birth, in "Siegfried" Act III. So we can see here that this conjuncture of dramatic tropes in "Parsifal," i.e., his self-ignorance (foolishness), unwitting perpetuation of the sin of matricide (denial of Nature in religious belief in transcendence), Amfortas's unhealing wound, and seeking of redemption through union with his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration Kundry, are all one thing. This is what her kiss reveals to him. His compassion for Amfortas is the compassion the now wholly self-conscious artist-hero feels for his audience over the millennia, whom he redeemed only temporarily from the bitter truth, through illusion, but in so doing predestined himself, and them, to suffer an unbearable fall, once the truth became too conscious to hide.
P. 64-65: PH: DB reminds us that now that Tannhaeuser had nothing more to lose, having lost all religious grounds for redemption, he seeks again the loving arms of his muse [PH: of unconscious artistic inspiration] Venus, but Wolfram saves him from this damnation by pronouncing loudly the name Elizabeth [PH: Tannhaeuser's conscious and ideal (as opposed to real) muse]. DB: "Wolfram explains that she, the angel who prayed for him on earth, has now made her way to heaven, and is standing above him in benediction. He assures Tannhaeuser that he is redeemed, and Venus, finally accepting defeat, vanishes for good. A funeral cortege comes into sight, bearing a bier with Elizabeth's corpse. The mourners are singing that the pure one, Elizabeth, is united with the heavenly host, and that her prayers have won salvation for the sinner. Tannhaeuser expires ... . And now some younger pilgrims appear back from Rome. They proclaim the opera's redemptive conclusion, Wagner's characteristic Erloesung, and they are indeed describing a miracle by which both Elizabeth and Tannhaeuser are redeemed. God has proved more forgiving than his vicar on earth, the Pope. What the Pope said could never happen has happened. The young pilgrims are bearing aloft the Pope's staff wreathed around with fresh green leaves."
PH: One can't help recalling here Hans Sachs's description of the mastersingers' art, that they in old age, the autumn of life (the season of Tannhaeuser's return is autumn), conceived a means through art to preserve what was lost, springtime. I have already offered in the previous paragraphs my argument which explains the parallel between the Pope's once dead, newly fertile staff, and the Good Friday Spell in Parsifal. I might also add the following: Deryck Cooke noted in his analysis of the musical motifs of the "Ring" that as Bruennhilde's defiance of Wotan's authority, symbolized by his Spear, gradually softens his resistance to her plea that instead of leaving her to be forced into marriage by any man, no matter how non-heroic, who finds and wakes her, he insure she be won instead only by an authentically fearless hero (namely, the Waelsung Siegfried, whose bloodline Wotan has condemned through divine law), the Spear motif, once so rigid, transforms into variations which are softer and more ornamented. This is really a sort of musical parallel to the greening of the Pope's dead staff.
P. 73-74: DB describes how Wagner combined two distinct stories from several sources to create "Tannhaeuser," and how this may have something to do with its lack of complete dramatic coherence. DB: " 'Hamlet' does not subvert its own values. 'Tannhaeuser' does subvert its own values, even though this gives a special richness to the work and a relevance that is both modern and timeless." DB states that from one source Wagner got two stories: "The first relates how Tannhaeuser breaks free of Lady Venus and her magic mountain where he has spent a year with evil spirits. In the second, the Pope refuses him forgiveness for his sins. These two narratives gave Wagner the beginning and the end of his drama ... ." DB notes that from another source Wagner got the idea for a singing contest in which Heinrich von Ofterdingen is possessed by the demon Nasias to sing songs of erotic desires and pleasures. DB: "The idea of joining together the legend about forbidden sensuality with the one about the contest probably came to Wagner from an essay of 1838 by a professor ... C.T.L. Lucas, who suggested that the two might have been identified in popular imagination. (...) The point which connected them was at the two fiendish possessions, a demon possessing Heinrich von Ofterdingen and Venus possessing Tannhaeuser." DB notes this explains "... partly why Tannhaeuser is a divided spirit."
PH: Wagner himself said that making this link between these two primary narratives is how he came to create his "Tannhaeuser." The significance of this for my interpretation of Wagner's canonical artworks is that it allows Wagner to present both the artist hero's waking life among his potential audience and rivals, and his inner and hidden life of unconscious artistic inspiration which, once Tannhaeuser involuntarily pours the light of conscious day into it during his contest song in Act II, makes the once divided world one. This is precisely what Siegfried and Tristan do in giving their true love, their muse-lover, away to another man, who, in Wagner's unique worldview, represents the artist-hero's audience. The risk of exposing the secrets of the unconscious mind to consciousness is central to Wagner's life's work, but particularly from "Tannhaeuser" onward. It is the source of the suspense in "Lohengrin" as to what will ensue if Lohengrin is forced to expose his true identity to the light of day, something which Elsa instinctively supposes might lead to catastrophe and anguish for Lohengrin himself. It is the ultimate source of the dismay which undermines all social order in the Nuremberg riot which ensues ostensibly because of the racket which both Sachs and Beckmesser are making out in the street at night, but which in actuality is caused both by Sachs's revelation to Eva of the true source of unconscious artistic inspiration during his cobbling song (and which also explains how secular art becomes a substitute for religious faith, a sort of temporary restoration of lost paradise), and by the fact that Beckmesser's uninspired serenade is unable to offer the Folk redemption from the bitter, fatal truth which Sachs confesses to Eva, that religion is in effect a sort of consoling Wahn, or illusion, which helps us overlook our mortality (i.e., art, the well-made shoe, makes us unconscious of the stones beneath, i.e., our mortality; thus Beckmesser's song which is consciously and conscientiously correct but uninspired by the muse of art, creates a shoe through which we can feel the stones beneath our feet, i.e., our mortality). Note also that Beckmesser says, during his song, that he doesn't think of dying, but only of wooing; the Wagnerian artist-hero must be willing to die in order to be reborn, i.e, he must be capable of confronting man's intolerable dragon of self-knowledge within his own unconscious mind, the realm of night, in order to draw from this unconscious confrontation the inspiration to sublimate its horror into a sublime, redemptive work of art, which is only an allegory representing the original source of inspiration. Thus the inspired artist-hero dies and is reborn, figuratively, each time mankind's unresolved existential dilemma (the wound that will never heal) causes him such anguish that he must seek healing through loving union with his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration.
P. 74: DB: "The real difficulty was one which Wagner recognized only slowly, that even in its storyline 'Tannhaeuser' was a drama of unresolved discrepancies, however well they resolve at the levels of myth and psychology. As a narrative, 'Tannhaeuser' contains non sequiturs between events and their consequences and inconsistencies in the characters and their motives."
PH: I am sympathetic to DB's assessment. Wagner, I suspect, was trying to do too much in "Tannhaeuser," but for that very reason it contains the seedbed for all of Wagner's subsequent artworks.
P. 75: DB: "One inconsistency which was positive was that Wagner gave both Venus and Elisabeth features which cut right across any initial, simple impression of the one as profane and the other as sacred. This very ambivalence adds quality to the story, making the characters more relevant and real, more psychologically truthful."
PH: Here, here!
P. 75-76: DB finds much that is positive in Venus, a feeling which contradicts what Wagner once said he presumed his audience would feel, and the audience of the Wartburg does feel, horror at Tannhaeuser's experience in the Venusberg. Not only, he says, does Tannhaeuser sing her praises as the fount of all beauty, but DB notes that: "Venus is a positive force, set in opposition to war and man's more destructive instincts. She confers fertility and abundance. (...) At the end of the opera it is she, the pagan goddess, who is more forgiving than the Christian Pope. None of this fits the idea of Venus as fiendish ... ."
PH: DB is correct: Wagner has begun the Feuerbachian process of tracing all value back to nature and man's body (which of course includes man's physical mind, and therefore presumably the thoughts and feelings and actions generated by that physical mind), in Venus. But that is precisely what people committed to the illusion of transcendence do indeed find so horrible, that the ideal of holiness might merely be an imaginative sublimation of animal impulse. Feuerbach noted, for instance, that what the religiously faithful describe as uniquely holy sentiments and feelings are actually indistinguishable from natural sentiments and feelings, though these are falsely reinterpreted as having a divine origin.
P. 76-77: PH: Here is DB's I think cogent assessment of the conflicting elements in Elizabeth's character. Here DB is discussing what Elizabeth tells Tannhaeuser upon his mysterious return to the Hall which he had once arrogantly left, that Tannhaeuser's music had made an unprecedented impression upon her very being: "... she had missed the 'peculiar blend of joy and pain, feelings that I never knew before, and longings that I never felt before'. She reveals more than she knows or understands about the currents flowing within her, vaguely sensing them but unable to identify or define them. When Tannhaeuser explains that this is a miracle from the god of love, she eagerly accepts his answer and all its implications; but Wagner was shrewd in leaving only vague notions regarding the identity of this god of love? Who was it? Was it a Christian God; was it a pagan throwback; was it some Hegelian spirit? Wagner does not say."
PH: Though I have never seen one, I gather that in some productions of "Tannhaeuser" the same singer-actor portrays both Venus and Elizabeth. Certainly, as DB suggests above, Wagner had given us grounds for supposing that Elizabeth is responding to something in Tannhaeuser's art which was inspired in him unconsciously by Venus; I say unconsciously because evidently Tannhaeuser (except for the one instance in which he involuntarily revealed the true source of his inspiration in his contest-song at the Hall in Wartburg Castle) forgets where he has sojourned each time he wakes from the dream of inspiration in the Venusberg. In a way one could construe Elizabeth as Tannhaeuser's conscious ideal of what he supposes inspires him, his conscious muse, and construe Venus as his real, though unconscious and hidden, muse, and in this way grasp some sort of identity underlying the two muses. However, Elizabeth later asks God's forgiveness for ever having sinned, and one supposes she may be referring to the strange feelings Tannhaeuser awoke in her. Another point of note is that Tannhaeuser consciously describes his inspiration and the answer to the mystery of his return to Elizabeth as the God of love when his unconscious knows perfectly well he is inspired by the Goddess of love Venus.
P. 79: DB offers further reasons for linking Venus and Elizabeth: DB: "Wagner further complicated matters ... by presenting Elizabeth as upholding the same Christianity as the Pope and yet also praying for an outcome based on values that are the exact opposite of the Pope's. Although Elisabeth in some respects stands midway between Venus and the Virgin Mary, Wagner has made her closer to Venus in one respect, that she and Venus are compassionate to Tannhaeuser, unlike those stalwarts of religious orthodoxy, the knights and the Pope. At the very least it should now be clear that Wagner subverts any simple idea that 'the composer-librettist presented a conflict between spiritual and sensual love'. The fissures in 'Tannhaeuser' make it a very modern work, a drama for today." [PH: DB's footnote indicates that he has quoted this brief passage from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, prospectus for 2009-2010].
PH: Presumably both Venus and Elizabeth are compassionate towards Tannhaeuser because they are incipient representatives of Wagner's Feuerbach-inspired trope, later developed more completely, that the ethics which are predicated on the assumption that we are not products of Mother Nature but of a transcendent God, and therefore have an immortal soul which naturally seeks reunion with its spiritual source, are too hard for mortal, natural man to bear, whereas Tannhaeuser, as Wagner himself said, stands for the whole man, who has both spiritual aspirations and natural inclinations which, ultimately being one, seek reconcilement. This of course corresponds with DB's prior remarks about the need to integrate these conflicting impulses in man, which he says Wagner's art does to an exceptional degree.
P. 79: DB: "Central to the context [PH: in which 'Tannhaeuser' was created] is the millennia-long vilification of the body and the conflict between sacred and profane, sex and spirit, throughout the 'civilized world' ... ."
PH: You will find in my anthology of passages from Wagner's writings and recorded remarks, posted here in this website, several extracts in which Wagner proclaims the age-old distinction between nature and spirit to be illusory and wrong. Feuerbach explained that the Christian vilification of the body stemmed from man's assumption that he has a divine origin, which naturally makes man's body and its impulses a source of shame, testament to the Fall from grace with God. However, man's vilification of his body, arising as it does from man's illusion that there is a transcendent realm of being, itself stems from a natural cause, namely, the nature of man's unique gift for abstraction and for transforming experience into symbols for, or epitomes of, experience, which lends itself automatically to deceiving man into believing he, or at least his god, can be autonomous from the real world of things.
P. 80-81: Here DB introduces Marina Warner, who "... analyses the extent to which the Early Church Fathers stigmatized sexual expression as the one, true original sin ... . (...) ... it was from them that originated the poisonous conviction that all the evils of man flowed from sexuality, Eve and 'woman'. ... her book dissects minutely why 'it is almost impossible to overestimate the effect which the Early Church's characteristic association of sex and sin and death has had on the attitudes of our own civilization,' the very attitudes that 'Tannhaeuser' did so much to overturn. Wagner created 'Tannhaeuser' against the 'still unchallenged structure of original sin: the rebellion of Adam and Eve against God ... When they sinned, death and sex as we know them entered the world."
PH: In the Bible's Book of Genesis Eve's sin in breaking God's injunction not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, i.e., not to acquire divine knowledge, brought original sin into the world and cast her and her brother-husband Adam out of paradise. Now, not only would humankind be subject to death, and thus to the existential fear of the death which, unlike other animals, they could foresee, but also to shame at having a body and sexual impulses (thus Adam and Eve become aware they are naked and cover themselves up). Wagner in his "Ring" captured this price of the Fall in his two giants, Fafner and Fasolt, who remind the so-called gods of the claims of nature and the body upon them. Fafner represents fear of death and Fasolt represents sexual love. To see how I've construed them you must read my chapters on "The Rhinegold" posted here at this website. Something which fascinates in "Tannhaeuser" is the fact that the landed gentry at the Wartburg construe as evil, as hell, the Venusberg, which in fact is the source for all their holy ideals and purest feelings, sublimated by the imagination into something experienced as transcendent. It is this subversive fact which Tannhaeuser springs on them in his song, shocking them to their core.
PH: I have stated elsewhere in this review that Eve's breach of God's injunction against obtaining forbidden knowledge, the knowledge which ejected Adam and Eve out of Paradise into a fallen world, is Wagner's primary model for his heroine-lovers, who act as the artist-hero's muses of inspiration.
P. 94-96: DB describes how Wagner realized over time that the music he'd written for the Venusberg and Venus's duet with Tannhaeuser in Act I in 1845 was ineffective, and that Wagner therefore revised this music in 1861 into the much more mature and expressive music we know today. "To create a satisfying dramatic balance, Venus' court needed to be fulsome, and for his Paris rewrite, Wagner readjusted and improved the balance by creating for the 'Venusberg Bacchanale' a music which was overwhelming. (...) Some critics suggest that the new music is too 'Tristan'-like in its chromaticism, but what is interesting is that it represents an area of Wagner's most advanced chromaticism which is not 'Tristan'-like at all. It is quite unlike anything else he ever wrote. It has far fewer echoes of 'Tristan and Isolde' than do the Kundry scenes in Act II of 'Parsifal.' Our knowledge of Wagner's music is seriously impoverished if we do not know the Paris version of the opening 'Bacchanale' and Venusberg scenes. ... some critics have argued that Wagner's new music goes beyond the style of 'Tannhaeuser,' and the leading figure among them was ... Richard Wagner."
PH: I fully concur with this. This music is for me one of Wagner's greatest miracles, but it is so far in advance of the style of most of 'Tannhaeuser' that it stands out almost as if an interpolation into the 1845 original from another completely different work of art. If Wagner's purpose was to express how much more persuasive Venus's world is than Tannhaeuser's waking, workaday world, Wagner accomplished his purpose, but then that seems to make a lie of much else that happens later in 'Tannhaeuser', since Venus and her world are ultimately cast into oblivion for the sake of a comparatively tepid and tame and frankly comparatively mundane and boring alleged religious redemptive apotheosis in the finale. Wagner really needed to bring the rest of 'Tannhaeuser' up to the same level, but he never did.
P. 96: DB: "Wagner's reservations have resulted in a widespread conviction that the newer music sabotages the stylistic unity of 'Tannhaeuser,' and that the Dresden [PH: 1845] version is superior. However, 'Tannhaeuser' never had stylistic unity. In all versions it puts together so many different styles and balances them with such consummate art, that nobody could sensibly regard its stylistic anomalies as a failing. To be sure it is a hotchpotch, but a glorious, compelling, wholly operatic hotchpotch, and it has a strange and convincing coherence. It adds to its coherence that the balance between the two contrasting worlds, sacred and profane, works better after the Paris revisions. However, there was a price to pay because the Paris enrichments increased the imbalance of ... 'Tannhaeuser's formal structure ... . The revised opening scenes are so lengthy and momentous that everything afterwards seems tame in comparison."
PH: DB seems to be sending mixed messages here. I can't agree with him that in spite of the stylistic differences "Tannhaeuser" as a whole remains coherent and compelling, but nonetheless he also acknowledges here that these huge revisions gave Venus and her realm such weight that " ... everything afterwards seems tame by comparison." With this I can agree. The problem was that Wagner would have had to rewrite this work as a whole, not simply apply patchwork here and there, to make it coherent, but by the time he started making these revisions his primary inspiration was being directed to mature music-dramas which are virtual bywords for musico-dramatic coherence. Much of what is of value in "Tannhaeuser" was incorporated into Wagner's subsequent artworks. In this sense it can be regarded both as an important work of art, and a somewhat uneven experiment which bore great fruit for later work.
P. 96-97: DB notes that the Act II song contest was not effective enough. DB: "Wagner was none too thrilled when his wife Minna, present at the rehearsals for the first ever Dresden production, told him bluntly that the singers' contest was in danger of falling flat."
PH: And flat it remained. Though Wagner tried, as DB notes, to rationalize his approach in his autobiography, this song contest has never worked for me, though I grasp what for Wagner was musico-dramatically at stake. Wagner quite simply never provided Tannhaeuser's rivals for Elizabeth's hand with persuasive material, i.e., persuasive as legitimate foils to Tannhaeuser's inspired art, foils which are archetypes of a more staid tradition.
P. 101: DB: "A puzzling feature of his Paris revisions was that he expected Venus' greater appeal to make people feel sorrier for Tannhaeuser and more aware of how he must be suffering over leaving such a fiendishly tempting lady, but in fact the opposite happens. Her added appeal makes Tannhaeuser seem more heartless, more of a male chauvinist pig. Moreover, Venus has been largely reconfigured as a benefactress and the source of beauty: so where does this leave the idea of Tannhaeuser's time with her as a 'boese Lust' (evil joy) and of the Venusberg as evil? (...) This huge wealth of explanation at last places us in a position to get to grips with [the] central ambiguity of 'Tannhaeuser,' which is about the sin of its title character. What is it, this sin, this wrongdoing which the opera is warning us to avoid?"
PH: DB answers first, that Tannhaeuser's sin is fornication. Perhaps we might accept this if we didn't know how Wagner would later develop the dramatic tropes of "Tannhaeuser" in his subsequent artworks, in which it becomes clear that the Wagnerian artist-hero's ultimate sin is the unwitting and involuntary exposure of the secrets of his unconscious artistic inspiration, the realm of night, to the light of day, which in three of Wagner's subsequent artworks is symbolized by a hero giving away to another man (who represents Wagner's own audience for his art) the woman who would otherwise be the artist-hero's loving muse. Klingsor is a special case: his magic garden is Wagner's final assessment of the nature of inspired art in general, and his own art in particular, as a sort of after-thought of the religious impulse, which has now become too conscious to provide a persuasive experience of redemption. Klingsor, self-castrated (i.e., too conscious now to enjoy loving union with a muse-lover like Kundry), grants access to Kundry instead to Amfortas, thus dealing Amfortas the wound that will never heal. Similarly, both Tristan and Siegfried separate themselves from their former lovers Isolde (yes, Isolde cured Tristan's wound that will never heal temporarily while he lay unrecognized - except by her - in Ireland, through her love), an equivalent to Klingsor's self-castration, prior to handing them over to Marke and Gunther, respectively. In both these cases also tragedy ensues.
PH: The thing to remember, always, is that for Wagner sexual love between hero and heroine is his metaphor for the artist-hero's unconscious artistic inspiration. Thus, Tannhaeuser's sin of fornication is consistent with his ultimate exposure of the illicit nature of his unconscious artistic inspiration by Venus of the song he sings to win Elizabeth's hand in the song-contest. The sin that is irredeemable is that Tannhaeuser has exposed the unconscious process through which animal impulses have been sublimated into holy love. This may help to resolve the difficulty DB faces in trying to reconcile all the contradictory elements in Tannhaeuser's relationship with Venus and Elizabeth, which he itemizes below:
P. 105-106: DB: "Tannhaeuser's sin began as lechery, a carnal relationship with a witch-goddess, Venus; and the Wartburg Court and Pope held onto this view of it. For us the first jolt away from it happens when the witch goddess emerges reconfigured as a benefactress of mankind. An erotic relationship with a benign deity is a different matter from raunchy carnal knowledge with a rose of hell. The next jolt is when Tannhaeuser's sin is redefined as his injury to Elizabeth, in his eyes at least. (...) His whole purpose in winning absolution had been to render Elizabeth happy and fulfilled. His aim ... was to 'sweeten the tears of his angel,' but he has failed to achieve it because he has not won his absolution from the Pope. (...) This is what plunges him into despair and self-destruction."
PH: In Wagner's subsequent artworks religious faith no longer holds hope for redemption in the face of secular scientific skepticism, so that the only recourse besides Wotan's sort of nihilistic drive to self-destruction becomes secular art which is divorced from religious faith, just as Wotan divorces himself and the gods from the Waelsung twins, from Bruennhilde (who becomes the artist-hero Siegfried's muse of unconscious artistic inspiration), and from the artist-hero Siegfried, who can only be a redeemer if he acts wholly independently of the gods, i.e., independently of religious faith and the illusion of transcendence. This follows Feuerbach's notion of mankind's historical trajectory, that over time man would gradually liberate himself from the gods and substitute his true mother, nature, for them. This trajectory corresponds to some extent with DB's following summation of the philosophical importance of "Tannhaeuser.":
P. 107: DB: "The dramatic inclinations of the music and the opera as a whole proclaim Tannhaeuser's liberating truths and affirm the erotic as life-enhancing. Cosima Wagner was right when she told Wagner that the whole 'Venusberg' scene 'casts over the audience the magic spell that causes Tannhaeuser's downfall,' but what really registers in the imagination is the magic spell and not the downfall. What counts is that 'Tannhaeuser' imparts a spellbinding quality to erotic experience, and even gives an erotic shimmer to Elisabeth and her exalted passion. Tannhaeuser's 'Rome narration' likewise arouses sympathy for the erotic values he espouses, whereas the Pope's harsh judgment and menacing dogmatism wins no hearts, and there is a sense of relief when his judgment is annulled and Tannhaeuser gains his forgiveness. All these factors add to the opera's subliminal lesson that erotic experience is something to accept and treasure."
P. 108-116: PH: DB's final pages on 'Tannhaeuser' tally its lessons for us on dangers of regression (Tannhaeuser's retreat to the womb-like fantasy world of the Venusberg to escape harsh reality), repression (the knights of the Wartburg who deny their sexuality), drug addiction (DB suggests we can interpret Tannhaeuser's obsessive bond with Venus as a metaphor for sex-and-drug-addiction), and infidelity (the damage Tannhaeuser's sojourn with Venus does to the love he has for Elizabeth). P. 114: DB: "Such enslavement to Venus has an antisocial impact of extreme force, a poignant result of 'the animal distorting the civilized man'."
PH: These arguments stand on their own, so I will maintain neutrality toward them. They do not figure in my own interpretation.
THIS CONCLUDES MY REVIEW (PART 5) OF CHAPTER 11 (ON "TANNHAEUSER") FROM "THE WAGNER EXPERIENCE." (EDITED ON 5/5/2015)
General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung
1 post • Page 1 of 1